With the turn of the calendar and the days beginning to get longer, we’re looking forward to a new year and possibilities (and hopefully a little less about the tumult and challenges of 2020 and 2021). One of the reasons we’re excited about looking forward is because every day we work with communities across the country who have used the last few years not as an opportunity to throw in the towel, but rather to roll up their sleeves and envision how to build for a better future. We’ve seen their vision, and it’s a bright one.
At the federal level, this local vision is seen as the ticket to creating better systems for the future. In 2021, the Economic Development Administration received $3B as part of the American Rescue Plan. With it, six grant challenges were created to infuse regions with the capital needed to execute transformative projects. The Build Back Better Regional Challenge “provides transformational investments to develop and strengthen regional industry clusters across the country, all while embracing equitable economic growth, creating good-paying jobs, and enhancing U.S. global competitiveness.” This has long been the work and goal of economic, workforce, and community developers. But such a program provides the opportunity to implement changes at scale.
The sixty finalists of the program received $500,000 to further develop their projects, and 20-30 will ultimately receive funding. But regardless of a community’s success in this program, one way or another, with or without new federal assistance, communities will make investments to seed new opportunities and promote growth, and hopefully the investments in economic development, community development, and workforce development will be mutually reinforcing.
While these principles may be self-evident, making specific investments may prove far more challenging. As the economy and the job market continue to experience volatility, communities must build strategies and make investments that are driven by a fact base that reflects current realities. This also must be done with a level of granularity that allows workers, communities, and talent systems to move intentionally through the confusing and dynamic labor market we are experiencing.
We all want to build back better. But regardless of the financial backing, as communities orient to do that, let’s ask some key questions that will help us do it in the smartest way possible:
1. What are our region’s special assets?
Workers with unique skills, existing infrastructure, strong business sectors, education, and training capability—What can we put towards strengthening existing opportunities, creating new activity, or drawing in new companies, workers, and economic activity? Lightcast worked with the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center in southeast Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia region to identify suppliers for the region’s manufacturing industry that have been underutilized. Linking the region’s large manufacturers with these nearby suppliers can not only build those businesses and increase the number of good jobs in the region, but can also insulate area manufacturers from supply chain disruptions that farther-flung networks may be susceptible to.
2. Have only a narrow set of our constituents accessed those assets disproportionately?
How can we make sure that the broadest set of actors can be engaged in the service of building our shared prosperity? Through analyses conducted for NPower and the Command-Shift initiative, Lightcast identified large numbers of diverse workers in tech-enabled jobs. These workers, who use technology and are highly tech-savvy, are a good source of talent for the technology sector, and can be upskilled in order to address acute tech skills and worker shortages. This untapped pool of workers is not only well-positioned to do the work, but also represents a large talent base of women and people of color who are woefully underrepresented in the tech sector.
3. Given those opportunity areas, what target efforts can help us realize those opportunities?
What unique-to-us version of outreach, career awareness, skills training, credentialing, and supportive services will ensure that our companies can access the widest range of talent? Tipping Point community in the San Francisco Bay area supports a number of area job training providers and leveraged Lightcast data analyses to identify career pathways into high-demand and living-wage occupations. More than just the data, Lightcast also created guidance for those training providers so they can use the data to inform their specific programs, update training content, and be more specific in how they are promoting the job and job training opportunities to their constituents.
4. With their unique set of existing skills and the specific needs of our emerging economy, how can we invest in people in a way that is meaningful and efficient?
Given that we need everyone off the bench and in the game, we need to build on what we have to address what we need. In many ways, this begins by changing our messaging to those disenchanted by the economy and their place in it. Historically, civic leaders have directed resources and supportive services to help those who have not gained traction in the economic mainstream. But we are no longer in a position to treat the potential workforce as in need of our resources. The tables have turned. Reorienting the message from “we can help you” to “we need you” can help disengaged people see their value. There is plenty of talent available— successful communities will tap into it. We have not always recognized, developed, or utilized all of the talent that we have, but we cannot afford to do that any longer.
Answering these questions of course requires a deep, rich, and up-to-the-minute fact base. As communities plan to make their case for investment in talent development and talent systems that support economic recovery, Lightcast can serve as an important resource to build that fact base and inform targeted interventions. Our data, analytic techniques and strategic guidance can be deployed at scale across the hundreds of communities that are creating strategies, making investments, and activating their whole population in order to truly build back better.
2022 is the time. If you’re as passionate about this work as we are, I’d love to hear from you and learn more about projects in your community.
Joel Simon serves as Vice President of Workforce Strategies. He leads a team focused on custom consulting projects with an expertise in projects geared towards equity. He has worked in neighborhoods, cities, metros, and larger regions for more than 25 years.